The Concept of Beauty in Design

From the Mona Lisa’s smile to your favorite t-shirt, beauty is all around us. It’s a complex concept, and yet one that we’ve debated for centuries. It was once a profound philosophical category, soberly debated by the Greeks and carefully delineated by 18th century minds, but today it can feel like a nebulous abstraction, unworthy of our serious attention.

But it’s an important concept for designers to think about, whether they are designing a product that aims for elegance, simplicity or boundary-pushing image-making. In a world of climate crisis and political turmoil, beauty has never been more crucial. This talk will explore some of the indices that we use to define what is and isn’t beautiful.

Beauty has always been something we value, but how do we know it exists? Plato believed that the beauty we experience is a feature of a higher realm of forms. He and Aristotle both held an objective view of beauty, based on characteristics of the object or artifact, such as balance, symmetry and order, or proportion.

The 18th century, with its post-Enlightenment confidence in human capability and emergent sense of inalienable rights, saw a shift in thinking about beauty. Philosophers such as Edmund Burke read beauty as a series of qualities that are meaningful only insofar as they resonate with our cultural, moral and theological concerns. This theory of beauty explains how great examples of taste arise, why the rules of aesthetics seem to be by-products of good design (as Plato would argue), and it answers Kant’s intuition that beauty inspires morality.

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